THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY: A Last Hurrah For Idiosyncratic Italian Horror Elegance

If you’re a Lucio Fulci fan, there’s a strange poignancy to watching The House By The Cemetery today. This film found him in the middle of what was arguably the last era of his career, a time where his projects had enough space – both artistically and financially – to fully accommodate his idiosyncratic artistry. There was a creative freedom that he would not enjoy in the latter half of the ’80s. To his credit, he takes full advantage of that freedom here and the result is suffused with the uniquely personal approach to the shock-horror he was known for.

The premise of The House By The Cemetery plays like a mash-up of The Amityville Horror with any number of gothic horror tales, including some overt nods to Henry James. Dr. Norman Boyle (Paolo Malco) travels to a strange house in Connecticut to continue a research project after a colleague commits suicide. He also takes his high-strung wife Lucy (Catriona MacColl) and young son Bob (Giovanni Frezza).

Norman discovers his colleague’s research was leading to dark truths about the house and its prior occupant, one Dr. Freudstein, who performed experiments that could be considered atrocities. Strange, violent things begin to happen around the house – and Bob makes friends with a strange little girl named Mae (Silvia Collatina) who warns him to leave before it is too late…   

The House By The Cemetery is considered by Fulci fans to be part of the unofficial “Gates Of Hell Trilogy” alongside City Of The Living Dead and The Beyond, with all three films blending shocks, surrealism and nods to gothic horror literature. It fits into that category but offers more of a “chamber piece” approach to this style: the action occurs mostly around the house and the script focuses on how the house’s evil vibes affect its new inhabitants.  A particularly interesting hook is the way a lot of the story is aligned with the perception of young Bob, who is more open to the otherworldly than his parents but too naive to foresee its dangers.

That said, The House By The Cemetery is every bit as comfortable with grue as its fellow Gates Of Hell compatriots. Fulci and his collaborators are careful to pace the atmospheric storyline with lashings of bloodshed: there’s a quick but memorably vicious knife kill that starts the film off as well as a brutal murder with a fireplace poker, a couple of epic throat slashings, a surprise bat attack (!) and a point-of-view shot that travels through Dr. Freudstein’s lab to reveal all the carnage wrought by his experiments. The film’s third act is particularly grim, with Fulci unloading both barrels on all his characters as the house’s darkness steps forward to claim all the innocents in a cruel, blood-drenched manner.

These shocks are balanced out by suspense setpieces, like a nail-biter where Freudstein presses a helpless Bob’s head against the other side of a door as his father tries to break it down with an ax, as well as surreal tableaus like a mannequin whose head suddenly falls off to unleash a spurt of gore.  Such moments remind the viewer that Fulci’s directorial range extended beyond choreographing splatter effects.

This combination of the atmospheric and the ferocious works thanks to Fulci’s distinctive directorial touch, which treats these qualities as two sides of the same coin. With veteran collaborators like cinematographer Sergio Salvati and editor Vincenzo Tomassi, the director creates an artfully rendered setting for all his mayhem: like the film’s haunted house, it conducts its dark business with a style and a sense of precision that is all business. They also create a mournful vibe that fits the story’s mood of impending doom, with the lyrical but intensely sad score from Walter Rizzati being a major player in setting that mood.

The House By The Cemetery further benefits from a solid cast: Malco and MacColl make likeable leads who try their best to prevail despite the supernatural forces hemming them in. MacColl in particular is interesting, playing a kind of fragile, psychologically damaged heroine (shades of gothic horror) different from the stronger women she played in her other Fulci films. Texture is provided via supporting turns from Dagmar Lassander as a realtor eager to offload the haunted house and Ania Pieroni as a mysterious babysitter.

That said, the acting component of the film really belongs to Frezza and Collatina as the kids at the heart of the film. You could argue that The House By The Cemetery is Fulci’s twisted horror version of a kid’s film: despite putting these two young protagonists through their paces, his sympathy as a storyteller seems to lie with them. They’re the last to be heard by the other characters, both lacking agency for different reasons as they struggle to confront the house’s horrors on their own diminished terms. Frezza’s work sometimes gets goofed on in the English language version for its odd dubbing but he and his more ethereal counterpart Collatina really carry the film, particularly in its unexpectedly affecting final moments.

To sum up, The House By The Cemetery is one of Fulci’s best films from his golden early ’80s era, one that has acquired a nostalgic sadness in subsequent years that is in keeping with the film’s sorrowful tone because it represents the end of an era. The second half of the ’80s would offer lesser scripts, smaller budgets and circumstances (namely health issues) that would all keep Fulci from achieving the heights of his “Gates Of Hell Trilogy” era. Thus, The House By The Cemetery is special because it’s a kind of last hurrah for this kind of heightened aesthetic in his approach to horror.

Blu-Ray Notes: The House By The Cemetery has enjoyed releases from more than one company during the high-def era but the best version to date in blu-ray form is the recent reissue from Blue Underground.  It’s a two blu-ray/one CD set that offers an elegant 4K restoration of the film plus a full disc of extras including interviews with key personnel and an analysis of the film by Fulci expert Stephen Thrower. It also throws in a deluxe CD of the film’s score.

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